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First crossposted in October 2020.
The Panama Canal project is much older than just the US imperialistic endeavor and completion of the 20th century that most people associate it with that led to the birth of a new republic.
Leaving aside all issues regarding the indigenous population of the Americas, their suffering and their contribution, this article will focus only on the actions and plans of European conquerors with regard to the canal.
To be fair we have to say that the first well known Western man looking for an imperialistic trade water-route to Asia connecting the Atlantic and the ‘Southern Sea,’ (an early name for the Pacific Ocean in the first decades of the European invasion: ‘Mar del Sur’) was Christopher Columbus in the journeys that followed his first ‘discovery’ expedition, although he never actually reached that vast ocean. Historical chronicles and books teach us that later on Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and his men, following Rio Chagres, were the first Westerners to wash themselves in the Pacific after crossing what would become known as the Isthmus of Panama. But it’s quite unknown that even the Castilian-Extremaduran conqueror Hernan Cortes – worldwide-known for his victory and destruction of the Aztec social system and culture – launched himself into that adventure. And it is also unknown to most that since Cortes’ enterprise of the 16th century, many projects to find a route and even to build a canal linking the two oceans were presented to Spain’s’ king by Spanish individuals and institutions.
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s expedition. Source: Wikipedia.
Later on, that pathway became such an important ideal imperialistic tool for European powers that they started to fight for the possession of those lands, long before the French started the excavations for the canal in the 19th century and the United States of America completed it in the 20th. Indisputably, the US was not brighter than others. At that point in history such an idea was feasible because the US could learn from the technological, scientific and geographical knowledge and the failures accumulated in the previous decades and centuries by the earlier attempts at the canal.